Developing Cultural Competency by Addressing Micro-aggressions

By Laura Ross, Head of Upper School

We spend a lot of time at Greenhill talking about what it means to develop cultural competency, both in our faculty and staff and in our students.  One of my favorite definitions of cultural competency comes from the Teaching Tolerance website ( and it is as follows: “Cultural competency is the ability to work effectively— and sensitively—across cultural contexts. It involves learning, communicating and connecting respectfully with others regardless of differences. Culture can refer to an individual’s race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status and age, among other things. All these factors strongly influence people’s lives and experiences.”

On the day after the Winter Break all of our faculty and staff came together for a full day of professional development work around this idea.  We ended the afternoon with an incredible exercise called “the iceberg.”  We broke up into groups of around 40 people and each person drew their own iceberg – listing the visible identifiers each of us had that others could easily see, and then underneath sharing those things we carry that are unseen but that impact us every day.  We all then posted those icebergs anonymously around the room.  I will never forget how it felt to walk around the library and read what people shared.  We all have things that make us feel like we aren’t part of the majority, or that we are the “other”, in some contexts.  Greenhill School is, as our Mission Statement emphasizes right in the first line, “a diverse community of learners.”  The cultures represented on this campus are myriad and it’s essential that we understand how to learn, grow and work together, harnessing the strength of the different perspectives we all bring. I might even say that such work is not only critical, but imperative, if we are going to prepare our students successfully for college and beyond.

We are also doing this work with our students.  We have plenty of clubs in the Upper School that do ongoing work around issues of diversity such as Another Perspective and True Colors and the Social Justice club, but we’ve spent the fall in the Upper School trying to broaden that conversation to all Upper School students.  Just as we saw with faculty in the iceberg exercise, we know that our students are incredibly diverse in their backgrounds, ideas, family structures, value systems, etc.  It’s essential in our jobs as educators that we help students learn how to respect, understand and find pride and value in the different perspectives they and their peers bring to our campus and community.

To that end, we have spent the last month having conversations in advance of a screening of the film Dear White People for Upper School students, followed by a visit from the director of that film, Justin Simien.  It’s a provocative title, to be sure, but as the director himself has said, the point of the film is about identity development, and how hard it can be to develop one’s own individual identity when young, especially when other people can put you in a box based on visual identifiers (race, ethnicity, gender, etc.)

Dr. Karen Bradberry, our Director of Equity and Inclusion, has been leading workshops for Upper School faculty and students on “micro-aggressions” – a term popularized by Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University.  He defines them as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”  They are generally unintended slights; in schools they often take the form of “jokes” or casual exchanges that may go unrecognized as slights by a person hearing them who does not feel “other” in that context, but that can have harmful effects on members of our community.  This sort of thing goes on in schools, offices, and organizations all the time; we are no different as we are intentionally and foundationally a diverse community.  However, what I hope makes us different is that we decided to approach this head-on rather than pretend its effects don’t exist.deargreenhill2

After the groundwork was laid by our faculty, the seniors decided that they wanted to do something further to bring this issue to the attention of our broader community.  At this week’s C Day Meeting, an all-Upper School assembly, the students made signs detailing micro-aggressions they had heard or had experienced directly.  They each came to the front of the assembly and spoke into the microphone in front of all of their peers.  It was a moving and extremely powerful display of honesty, bravery and leadership by our students.  I am always proud to be a member of this community, but this was something special.

Here is a link to the assembly itself: and to a gallery of photos of some of the students taken by senior Ariana Zhang after the assembly:

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